Minnesota not alone in higher ed funding shortfalls

by Justin Ware

Lower-than-expected state allocations for higher education and unusually high tuition increases are not confined to Minnesota’s public universities.

Tuition has been inversely related to the economy for the last two decades. The cost of higher education has seen its highest increases during periods when the economy endured its lowest dips.

Four times in the last 21 years, the rate of inflation for the cost of higher education rose more than 6 percent. Increases in public university tuition follow periods of recession, most recently in 1990 and three years in a row from 1980-82. The rate of tuition increases across the nation was at its highest point in 1981 at 10.7 percent.

Higher-than-normal education inflation rates have followed what experts call a 10-year cycle. It has been a decade since the last major rate increases, and with the impending increases of the 2001-02 year, the pattern will remain intact.

The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and the University of Washington-Seattle are bracing for tuition increases during the next two years.

Washington will raise tuition 5.7 percent in 2001-02 and 5.5 percent in 2002-03. Michigan has not yet determined tuition levels for those years.

“State funding is tight,” said Julie Peterson, University of Michigan spokeswoman.

Including tuition and fees, a Michigan resident currently pays $6,513 a year. Peterson said she believes the institution needs a 3.5 percent increase in state appropriations just to cover the utilities increase.

Peterson said she does not believe the University of Michigan is alone in its financial difficulties. “A lot of public universities are in the same boat,” she said.

University Vice President and Provost Robert Bruininks agrees with Peterson and said education being funded less by the public and more by the individual is “very much a national trend.”

Bruininks also said this trend of decreased state financial involvement in education is nothing new. On average, state funding for universities has gone down roughly 30 percent during the past 20 years.

One strategy to compensate for the lack of funding is to raise tuition, but it is by no means the only strategy.

“Every university that I know is trying to cut costs,” said Bruininks.

The University will possibly cut costs by eliminating programs such as the College of Continuing Education and reducing the budgets of others such as employee health care benefits.

The University also belongs to the Committee on Institutional Cooperation comprised of administrators from several major universities who work to find ways of lowering the cost of education.

While the lack of funding is a concern for many, Bruininks insists the University has “done everything possible to maintain first-rate education.”

The University of Texas-Austin faces a similar situation with lower-than-expected funding from their legislature.

But the breadth of that legislature’s influence sets Texas apart. There, the legislature not only appropriates the University of Texas’ funding but also directly determines the tuition.

Francie Frederick, counsel and secretary to the Board of Regents, said the University of Texas is facing exponential and unexpected increases in the operating costs for the next year.

Like Peterson, Frederick provided the example of the increase in utilities costs to illustrate her point. In 2000, Texas paid $14 million in natural gas. The cost of natural gas for Texas halfway through 2001 has already reached the $20 million mark.

However, the tuition increase at the University of Texas for 2001-02 is 4.76 percent – a far cry from the University’s Twin Cities campus rate of 13.8 percent.

Minnesota state Sen. Tony Kinkel, DFL-Hubbard, vice chairman of the Higher Education Budget Division and dean of Northwest Technical College, attributed the tuition increase and legislative funding disparities between Minnesota and Texas to fundamental differences in the states’ higher education systems.

“Texas has incredible endowment funds for higher education,” said Kinkel. “Texas A&M may have the highest in the country.”

Kinkel said Texas also has far fewer college campuses than Minnesota, a state with one of the highest college campuses per capita ratios.

The large higher education system in Minnesota is one of the reasons Kinkel said he believes “a board of regents is a better entity to set tuition.” The job is simply too big for the Legislature, he said.

Kinkel also said that while he believes the Minnesota Legislature might not have increased tuition rates as much as the University did, the institution’s overall quality would have been sacrificed.

The national trend from publicly funded to individually funded education follows a changing set of cultural ideals, he said.

“In (1986), when I started, higher education was considered a common good,” Kinkel said. “Now, it has switched to an individual good. There has been a shift in how we look at higher education.”

Gov. Jesse Ventura supports transferring the obligation of paying for an education from the state to the individual student. Ventura based his allocation on having students pay for a larger share of their higher education while gradually decreasing the amount of state assistance.

Kinkel said he believes higher education is a public good and gives back to the community. “It’s tragic to watch,” he said.

Kinkel said it is up to students to determine the ideology surrounding their sources of education funds. He worries that young voters are not looking closely enough at the issues during election time.

“It has to start with the students themselves and who they vote for,” he said. “They need to equate candidates with issues rather than image.”